Rising to the challenge, Part 1 of ???

Good evening, all!

After my widely-read and underinformed indictment of the quality of romance novels as a genre, I’ve been challenged by Sarah and her friends at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books to read Sex, Straight Up, a.k.a. Vol. 388 (April 2008) of Harlequin’s Blaze series, whose front cover appears thus:

As a courtesy to my challengers (and all of those who voted to make this particular selection my sentence), I’ve decided to write about each chapter as I make my way through the book and post my remarks here (and send them on to Sarah so that she can do with them whatever she’d like to).

I don’t intend that the sum of my remarks should make up anything at all like a review. Rather, I hope that my random observations might simply provide a rough impression of my view of the book as I proceed. I also hope that those reading these notes will keep in mind that you may likely be far more used to the conventions of the genre than am I and that I’ll as often as not mistake this particular book’s quirks and idiosyncrasies for standard Harlequin formulas, just as I’ll mistake stock formulas for singular idiosyncrasies. Mea culpa, in advance.

Enough yammering! On to the good stuff...

Chapter 1: Diving In

Okay, the story so far: Adonis-like accountant and reluctant widower (wife killed in 9/11) Daniel O’Sullivan, no doubt one of the “sexy O’Sullivans” advertised on the book’s cover, reluctantly removes his wedding ring before reluctantly trudging off to a weekend at a time share with his brother’s law partners. Mission: have fun (code for: get laid).

A few days pass in the space of a line, and hilariously well-educated but unselfconscious auction-house appraiser Catherine Montefiore (a Levantine Lorelei?) spies aforementioned Daniel (whom she compares to Odysseus) on the sand in front of her grandfather’s beach house and proceeds to sketch him stealthily while thinking illicit thoughts to herself, subjecting us to the book’s worst line yet: “There was art, and then there was man art.” (Close runner-up, a page an a half later: “Classical baroque art would have been altered forever if some Hamptons Hussy had turned Odysseus into Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky Melon-Grabber.”)

The conversational style of the prose makes this book refreshingly easy to read. Then again, you get an occasional shot of words no man would never utter: “One woman’s crap is another woman’s soul mate.”

So far I’m not really hooked. Sorry, y’all.

Chapter 2: Three Days Later

I’m back for the next round. It’s gotten better. The prose is a little less pretentious, the dialogue a little more natural. This second chapter actually reads kind of like the transcript of a slightly-awkward first date, and while it’s not particularly engaging it’s believable.

I was pleased by the author’s decision not to make of our heroine Catherine Montefiore a brilliant chef de cuisine in addition to a casually talented sketch artist and expert art appraiser (“all that, and she can cook, too!”) after flirting with that possibility on page 28.

By the way, I wonder if it’s normal that I should find lines like the following one pretty frickin’ hilarious?: “He could feel the heat under his collar, the slow pound of his blood and the push of his cock against what had been a loose pair of shorts until he had found himself fascinated by a set of wistful brown eyes.”

My question for regular readers of the Blaze series: just what is it that distinguishes Blaze books from those in Harlequin’s other lines? Are they particularly torrid?

On to the next chapter...

Chapter 3: Sex, Uninterrupted

Right away the second paragraph delivers a knee-slapper: “She’d been so caught up in the rare moment of being in the close proximity of such a man-man and now she’d blown it.”

What exactly is a “man-man”?

“Manly man?” Maggie asked.

“Nope, ‘man-man.’”

After this it’s a ten-page semi-literal description of a timorous sexual encounter. I was vainly hoping to take in a few laughable euphemisms for the genitalia of both sexes. “Purple-headed warrior” was one of Maggie’s favorites from her many years of reading historical romance. The closest this chapter came to that was “velvety hardness.” Catherine’s girl-part is most elliptically described as “her opening.”

I think that’ll do for tonight.

More to come, folks!


Desuko. said...

You're a better man than me, Gunga Din. I never would have made it that far.

Unknown said...

I agree with Desuko. I still haven't recovered from the time I was 15 and a classmate nagged me into reading a Danielle Steele because "it's not just a romance, there's real stories".

I am, however, finding your outsider commentary fascinating.

Rex Parker said...

Please stop. It hurts. I can't stand to see the English language abused any further. Somebody somewhere thought this book was good? I'm ... confused. Is this person's first language English? On the Bad scale, there's simply bad, so-bad-it's-good, bizarro bad, and then whatever this is. Blaze bad.


Zoe Winters said...

hahaha. Well I am a BIG romance fan, but Harlequin kind of makes me gag a little. Just not my taste. Though they have many different lines, I have to say that category romance is not my thing.

But there are some really GOOD romances out there that are sexy and have more going on with them than JUST sex, or JUST this very overly formulaic girl meets boy thing going on. They have other major plot lines.

If you like paranormal things, like demons and vampires and such: Pleasure Unbound, by Larissa Ione is very good.

or: A Hunger like No Other by: Kresley Cole is also, IMO, amazing.

If you like things with a historical flair: "The Price of Desire" by Jo Goodman is a book I recently read that was really good. Actually had some genuine plot and character development depth.

But none of these books is in any way, shape, or form along the "Harlequin" line.

You still may or may not like it, and that's fine too, but I just feel that Harlequin is not a strong representation of what a lot of romance readers are consuming these days.

Zoe Winters said...

Though...if you're a guy there likely is NO romance novel that you would like, since it's mostly geared to a female audience. Though I find some of the books even outside of category romance to be scary.

One romance novel recently featured some kind of dragon poking at this chick's womb. (of course this was a euphemism. The penis is not a rocket, dragon, or sword, but this rarely stops people.) Normally when one has dragons in their womb, antibiotics are prescribed. This was in a paranormal romance, so even outside of category romances it can be...um...special.

And then of course there was the really bad Virginia Henley Historical: "Enslaved," where she referred to the penis as "manroot."

Sounds like something I should be baking with. Or something Lorena Bobbit bakes with.

JamiSings said...

Harlequin is the Ed Wood of romance novels.

You've got to get yourself some Karen Marie Moning. Not just romance novels, but really well researched romance novels. About time traveling druids, faires, and beserkers.

DocTurtle said...

Hey, All! Many thanks for the comments, but I would like to clarify, re: the choice of reading: I did not pick the titles that I'm reading right now. The choice was made by the readers of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (see the link in the post). The second book I'm to read is a 75-year-old historical romance that's likely to be a lot less risible than this first book.

Again, I'm just reading what I've been asked to read.

Rex Parker said...

The whole "it's for women" argument is kinda crap. I may not care for a particular book based on its themes or whatever, but that is not what is going on here - this here is one terrible book, however you slice it, and saying "it's for women" is a deep and raging insult to women readers everywhere. If your defense of a book (or anything) is "It's a _____ thing; you wouldn't understand," that's a sure sign you have no case.

To each his own (I read "Batman," for instance), but special pleading for the genuine goodness of this stuff is just sad. A romance that the general public might actually enjoy reading - one with complex characters and a compelling plot - is called a "novel."

My day has been brightened by this comments section today: rarely do I see "manroot," "berserkers," and "risible" all in one place. An embarrassment of riches.


Anonymous said...

Hey Doc, I'm glad to see that you have given Maughta a real name. One that I chose. I have never read romance novels, but I know Maughta has. I've guestioned it all though her high school days. Now I see she's gotten you on the bandwagon (or should I say bangwagon?) Maugtamom

Philippa Lodge said...

Rex Parker, have you even read this book? You decided on the basis of a few comments on clunky dialogue that it sucks? Shame.

Harlequin category romances aren't my favorites, either, but I guess for a first dip of the toe into the genre it'll do. Thanks for the open mind.

Anonymous said...

I can't get past the cover, where our shirtless young hero is nuzzling the red-dressed woman's...lower rib cage? Through the dress?

It just seems so unarousing to me, but then again i'm not an accomplished sketch artist/art appraiser/weekend vixen.

warren said...

There must be an erotica thesaurus — I've encountered the term velvety hardness before in another review of a romance book, written half a decade or more ago. It's one of those distinctive phrases, such as It was a dark and stormy night, that's impossible to forget.

McBangle said...

Romance novels are a guilty pleasure of mine, but I recently had to stop reading one only 100 pages in because it repeatedly refered to the male lead's penis as "his bad boy".

JamiSings said...

David - women get turned on by a lot more then just the usually breast-breast-vagina thing. Some go wild if you nibble their neck. Others will go from frumpy librarian to red hot porno star if you tickle their feet. So a guy nuzzling a ribcage can be hot to a woman. Just saying.

But still - about this book and the company that books it out - just - ug. I know, I remember the challenge from SBTB. Even commented over there on their choice. They could've done a way better job.

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Doc, I can't imagine why smart bitches wouldn't refer you to a better example of where romance fiction has gone.

Rex, I think it's a valid argument, because it IS primarily written for women. A man isn't generally going to like the romance genre in the same way a woman will. Which isn't to say "men aren't allowed to read them." They are. In fact the better ones, give a lot of insight into some women's brains.

But I didn't "excuse" the selection with that. I also stated that I didn't care for Harlequin books. So them being "for women" is neither here nor there for me.

I'm curious if you even read my entire post. Saying a genre is more geared toward women is not an insult. Sci-Fi is more geared toward men. (Sci-Fi readers are largely a male demographic.) It doesn't mean all Sci-Fi is good. Nor does it mean saying Sci-Fi is more a "male oriented" genre and then reading a bad Sci-Fi book is an insult to men.

I'm reading a horrible Sci-Fi book right now, and I can say, I don't think less of men because of it. And of course, men can read romance and women can read Sci-Fi. It's not like the girls and boys bathroom where you aren't allowed to go in.

But the sexes and what they like and dislike and how they think, in "general" are different. Our culture has spent the last 30-40 years trying to homogenize us into a unisex, and that's just not working.

We are different.

And I'm with Jami on the neck thing. Maybe that's why I like vampire romances so much. They never neglect the neck.

Anonymous said...

The best euphemisms I've heard that came from romance novels was one my wife was reading where the man had "a perky gerkin" and the woman's chest there were "chickpeas".

Kestrel said...

Hey DocTurtle, bless you for approaching this challenge with an open mind... and I'm totally OK with it if you don't like the Harlequin, they aren't for everyone, and they aren't always the best representation of what a romance can be. However, they are still highly entertaining.

To address the question of whether romance is directed at women, I think it completely is. My argument for this case in scientific in basis. Women are much more inclined to be verbal in nature, while men are more math/logic inclined. Always has been this way, always will be this way... well, until that unisex thing happens, but that doesn't sound like much fun...

Romance and all the various ways that have been used throughout time to describe a penis and a sexual encounter without being overly vulgar are targeting that women audience that is going to be more aroused by the written word. Men have porn, women have romance books.

Again, that's not to say that Romance as a genre can be summed up as soft-core porn, because there are certainly romances out there that don't have more than a chaste kiss (see Georgette Heyer later, Doc). The sex and sensuality found in most romances, and certainly the "Blaze" line, is just one element.

I adore romance because I believe that I share the sentiment with millions of others that there is the possibility of "true love". I think I have found it in my life, but it is, and always will be a trial to recognize it when it is there, and obstacles will always arise in the course of a relationship. Romance examines the myriad possibilities surrounding characters, and all the elements needed to bring true love to life. I have found some very profound things in romance, and when it comes to dealing with real people, the motivations and emotions in books have helped me to recognize situations and deal with them positively.

Could I find that kind of insight in some giant philosophical tome? Sure, but the journey would not be nearly as fun, or as "risible". :)

P.S. When it comes to purple prose, I of course find some of it humorous, but I think the addition of a word like "cock" or scientific terms in an eloquent and emotionally told lovescene to be jarring. I would much rather read "velvety hardness". Just MHO.

CD Covington said...

I got here via the SBTB. I'm not much of a romance reader, but I like my SF with romantic subplots.

I just read An Infamous Army, and it was really good. Meticulous research - a bibliography of primary sources! I learned more about the battle of Waterloo from that book than I did from high school history class. And there was a great romance worked in there, too. (Admittedly, I'm more fond of late Victorian era stuff, but...)

Anonymous said...

The original comment that started all this was.... “low-grade throwaway bodice rippers put out by the thousands by Harlequin and similar publishers....”

Therefore, the challenge was for Doc to read a Harlequin (or category) romance. For those who say SBTB didn't pick a romance which shows where the genre is going...obviously you don't know the heart of the challenge.

Of course, the SBTB readers would pick a modern day Harlequin Blaze romance! That's the latest thing happening in category.

There are thousands of romance novels out there - some better and some worse. I applaud you, Doc, for taking on the challenge and look forward to reading your take on the rest of the story as well as the Heyer novel.

Madd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madd said...

The challenge was to read a category. I'm not much into categories. I think that for me they are too short. The characters come together too quickly and the depths of there feelings for each other seems unwarranted. I've read a few that I liked, even though a couple were very clichè for categories. I think one was The Greeks Innocent Virgin bu Lucy Monroe. I like a lot of her stuff though and so it just might be that I like her style. I also like Kimberly Raye's Blaze books, but not her non-categories ... I don't know why.

There are all flavors of romance books out there and all manner of style. To give the whole genre a fair chance you'd need to sample several authors in several sub-genres. I'm partial to historical, paranormal and sci-fi/fantasy romances.

For a guy's intro to romance I would have gone with one of the Crusie/Mayer books or, if he likes sci-fi, someone like C.J. Barry. For something historical with some paranormal action I'd go with The Bride Finder by Susan Carroll.

Anonymous said...

I'm a romance reader, but not a Harlequin reader in recent memory. I'd hoped the Bitches would come up with one that I might enjoy too. Oh well.

However, I agree with a couple others that finding a Harlequin that would appeal to a non-aficionado was a pointless challenge. If the goal was to make DocTurtle like romance, there were plenty of surer options. Romance is enormous. If the chaff-to-wheat ratio seems too high in one corner of the genre, there's plenty more variety out there.

JamiSings said...

RFP - to be fair I can remember when this challenge was issued and it was because DT had made comments about Harlequin. So it would've been silly to challenge him to read a much higher quality romance like say one of Karen Marie Moning's Highlander romances. (I just love her books. Ruined me for all other romance novels.)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful commentary...I had a tooth out yesterday and I'm laughing so hard at your observations that I nearly busted a stitch or two there! Keep reading....

Zoe Winters said...

Eve said:
The original comment that started all this was.... “low-grade throwaway bodice rippers put out by the thousands by Harlequin and similar publishers....”


How was that statement wrong? How does this novel in the blaze line, disprove this statement? Sure, it's an opinion either way, but it's not as if the opinion is without merit.

Anonymous said...

Ah, this thread is fun to read! I will throw in my coupla pennies by noting that Harlequin Blaze is indeed a "sensual" line, meaning much more explicitly sexy than many of their other lines. Are some of the books published in that line really, really terribly written? Um, yes, in my opinion.

But are some of the books in that line very, very well written? Again, yes. Listen, I've gotten hooked on various forms of romance novels the past few years. But for most of my adult life (I'm 39), I was (still am) a serious literary fiction reader. I very much turned my nose up at romances with their torrid covers. Because of course, unfortunately, as with all things, some books very much so give the overall romance genre a baaaad name (thank you, SBTB, for bringing some of those books to our attention).

Yet I can definitely say that there are some superior romances out there, and Blaze actually does have some good ones. Some personal faves in the Blaze line (have not read all of them by a long shot): Kimberly Raye's vampire series, Shannon Hollis' On the Loose, The Cowboy Way by Candace Schuler (the sex scenes in that one were hot hot hot, and well-written too! No pulsing purple heads or anything like that. ;))

Far less worthy Blazes: Up Close and Personal and Getting Lucky, both by Joanne Rock (too unrealistic, not enough character building), One for the Road by Crystal Green (lazy writing, characters too remote).

And btw, I don't agree that Harlequin does not represent what modern romance readers are devouring. Gena Showalter, who is a HUGE seller (not my cup of tea, but others love her), is a Harlequin author. As are Maggie Shayne, M.J. Rose, Heather Graham, Debbie Macomber (publishing phenomenon), Sandra Brown, Diana Palmer (I hate her stuff, but others love her), Linda Lael Miller (awesome, very very very good writer), and Carly Phillips (again, not for me, but she sells a lot). Those are all huge authors, and Harlequin publishes them all--just under imprints you may not know are Harlequin, such as Mira Books and HQN.

Different folks, different tastes.

Zoe Winters said...

Anonymous, you bring up a good point. Unfortunately most people when they think of Romance, think of "Harlequin" And most people when they think of Harlequin think of "bad books"

Why a book that continues with that stereotype should be recommended as the reason Harlequin doesn't suck,I don't know.

But yes, some of my prejudices are still in place.

I guess it mirrors the prejudice many have toward self published work. Since most of it is drek, why wade through all the crap to get there? Almost every harlequin novel I've ever picked up didn't pull me in.

And if it's what's representative of romance as a genre, maybe we should all pack it in.

Zoe Winters said...

Oh, also, Mira to me isn't the same as "Harlequin" I understand that it's the same publisher. But it's not the publisher that is necessarily the thing I personally take issue with as sucking. It's more the "category romance" line.

For the most part they are shallowly constructed and poorly written books. IMO. Doesn't mean I can or do better, but it's a major publisher, why do we still have books this bad?

But you're right, it's all subjective.

Anonymous said...

Why a book that continues with that stereotype should be recommended as the reason Harlequin doesn't suck,I don't know.

That's exactly what I was wondering.